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Words of a Bibliophile

"It's only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away." —Bee Gees

SPOILER ALERT!

The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy (Montague Siblings #2) by Mackenzi Lee

The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy - Mackenzi Lee

I must admit I only bought this because I wanted the bonus novella which came with the pre-order and centers around Monty and Percy, the central characters of The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue which is the previous novel in this series. This time the focus is on Monty's sister Felicity, and while both siblings have their own shortcomings, Felicity is a prickly personality who just doesn't have Monty's special charm of being simultaneously ridiculous and ridiculously endearing. I perked up when Monty surprisingly appears again near the end of the novel, as I only expected him and Percy to feature at the beginning.


I did like the feminist theme of the book—it's not often that I read a YA feminist historical adventure novel with elements of fantasy—and how it explores women's struggles for a fulfilling life and work during the eighteenth century. I especially liked Felicity's childhood friend Johanna and her character's message that just because she likes pretty dresses and make up and parties, it doesn't mean she's frivolous or shouldn't be taken seriously or can't be smart and confident and accomplished at the same time.

One thing that bugged me though was the author consistently mistaking 'treaties' for 'treatise' throughout the book. So we have Felicity reading 'treaties' to learn about medicine and wanting to write her own 'treaty', when she's referring to a written exposition rather than an agreement.

SPOILER ALERT!

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations - Arthur Pober, Charles Dickens, Eric Freeberg, Deanna McFadden

This is possibly the oldest book in my to-read pile. My copy of it has "28 Mar 2008" scribbled on the title page, so it had been sitting on my shelf unread for over 10 years (I even found the Goodreads thread where I told a friend that I had just bought it at a discount). Finally crossing it off my list after all these years feels like a huge accomplishment.

I must say the story dragged a bit for me. Every once in a while something interesting happens but then it goes back to its plodding manner, until the third and final part of the book where things really run along. However, some details or minor characters which didn't really interest me earlier or didn't seem like they really matter turn out to be important in the end, so credit is due to Dickens for that. I also liked the comical touches which provides a nice balance to the dramatic plot and Gothic elements of the novel.

The orphan Philip Pirrip (Pip) as the central character of the book—I wouldn't call him a hero—is not exactly a sympathetic personality. He starts out innocently enough but after meeting the rich Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter Estella, he becomes ashamed of his simple country boy upbringing and of his brother-in-law/father figure, the kind but uncouth blacksmith Joe Gargery. Pip is then adopted by an anonymous patron with the promise of making him a gentleman and giving him a large inheritance. Instead of becoming more humble and using his relative prosperity to even better himself, he takes on an extravagant lifestyle and ends up accumulating debt. He can't stand Joe's unmannerly ways and basically cuts off contact with him. He also seems to have a low opinion of servants, errand boys and other people he now considers to be beneath him. Except for him reciprocating his best friend Herbert Pocket's kindness by secretly providing him with a livelihood, Pip's behavior makes it rather hard to root for him as a main character.

While Pip assumes all along that his benefactor is Miss Havisham, I had already been aware prior to starting the book that his true benefactor is the former convict Abel Magwitch, so that part didn't surprise me. What did surprise me, though, was Pip's persistence in his misguided idea that Miss Havisham as his supposed patron intends for him to marry her ward Estella, when he already knows from Herbert that Miss Havisham raised Estella to carry out revenge on all men. She even bluntly tells Estella, in Pip's presence, to break his heart. Maybe his love for Estella just makes him blind. Speaking of Miss Havisham, she is the most bizarre character with the strongest presence in the whole novel, and therefore the most interesting for me. Another favorite character of mine is a supporting one: Pip's ally Wemmick, who maintains a strict, cold demeanor at work as a lawyer's clerk but loosens up and unleashes his eccentricity at his tiny castle-like home.

Dickens is known for his improbable coincidences—which I had felt in A Tale of Two Cities—but some of the coincidental twists in this novel seem rather pointless. That Estella's birth mother is the housekeeper of the attorney Mr Jaggers, Pip's guardian, and that her father is in fact Magwitch don't seem to be very important in the grand scheme of things, since these facts are never revealed to Estella herself. Magwitch being her father also doesn't serve to endear him to Pip, as Pip's opinion of his true benefactor has already softened before he finds out about this. Magwitch's archenemy Compeyson being Miss Havisham former lover who scammed and jilted her years earlier is another revelation which doesn't go anywhere, since Miss Havisham never finds out about it and their relationship happened before Magwitch met Compeyson, so the former had no part in ruining Miss Havisham's life. It just felt like some the coincidences are purely for the shock factor and in order to have the characters connected in some way.

Despite his shortcomings Pip redeems himself near the end, as he comes to appreciate how much Magwitch has done for him and realize how badly he has behaved towards Joe and Biddy, his faithful childhood friend. The most delicious twist in the book happens when Pip, who has given up on Estella and intends to go and propose to Biddy, assuming she has been waiting for him all these years, returns home only to find that Joe and Biddy have just married. It's what Pip deserves, really.

The ending has him reunited with Estella, now a widow after having been ill-treated by her late husband, but it remains vague whether he and Estella truly end up together. Dickens actually wrote that ending after revising the original one, where they meet again after Estella has remarried and there seems to be no hope of them being together. In my opinion there has never been any romance between them to begin with as Pip's sentiments are entirely one-sided throughout the novel, and any feelings Estella might have developed are more likely to be regret borne from her suffering rather than love. But it's left to each reader's imagination whether they will end up together or it is just another one of Pip's great expectations which doesn't turn into reality.

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue (Montague Siblings #1) by Mackenzi Lee

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue - Mackenzi Lee, Christian Coulson

I've read some YA books as well as books with queer characters, and historical fiction is among my favorite genres. I've read a few queer YA books and at least one book which might be considered historical YA, but The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue marks my first queer YA historical novel. And what an entertaining one it is.

 

It starts out with the main character Henry Montague (nicknamed Monty by his nearest and dearest), an 18-year-old bisexual English nobleman in the 1700s, embarking on an extended trip to Europe with his younger sister Felicity and his childhood best friend Percy, who he's also lately been pining for. It's full of YA romance tropes (the author herself calls it a 'tropey adventure novel' in her end note), but it's done well and is precisely what one would expect coming in. What I didn't expect was that the characters' journey through Europe is not exactly a light and merry road trip but an action-filled adventure complete with highway robbery, pirates in the high seas and a central plot which steers the book towards fantasy territory. It's practically calling to be made into a movie.

 

Our gentleman Monty is less of a true gentleman at first and more of a self-centered brat, but his heart is in the right place and he gets a chance to become a better person. Some reviews that I've seen find his selfishness and lack of sensitivity less than endearing, but even a rich lord who wants for nothing has his share of problems. Barely out of his teens, Monty has been physically and emotionally abused by his father for being gay, likely suffers from some form of alcoholism, and entertains suicidal thoughts on top of that. Aside from queer culture, other social issues are presented through the character of Percy, a mixed-race young man raised in an upper-class English household (another burden of his is that he secretly suffers from epilepsy, which is still grossly misunderstood and stigmatized during the era), and Felicity, a smart and feisty 15-year-old whose opportunities in life are limited for simply being a girl.

(show spoiler)

 

All of these hot-button topics make the book seem rather anachronistic although the author based them on actual history. The language itself seems a bit uneven and sometimes I feel it slips into modern expressions. But did I mention it's fun? At times it's serious and thought-provoking yet doesn't lose its underlying charm of being delightful, hilarious and overall rather silly. Mostly it's fun—so fun I didn't really want Monty and Percy's story to end.

Lost For Words by Stephanie Butland

Lost for Words - Stephanie Butland

The cover makes this seem like a light fluffy romance, but it's much more than that. While it does have romance and some humor, it also deals with pretty heavy personal issues. The heroine, Loveday, carries emotional scars from her childhood and sticks to herself most of the time, keeping busy with her job at a cozy secondhand bookshop. The mystery of her traumatic past is slowly unraveled as she meets new people and discovers surprising things. Some aspects of the story and the writing could've been better, but I really liked how she learns some lessons throughout the book and grows in more ways than one. It was what I wanted but didn't get from the main character in The Language of Flowers, another book with similar themes.

Loveday learns through her own experience with dating violence to gain a new perspective on the past abuse that her mother suffered from in the hands of her father. She learns that just because someone else lives a relatively sheltered life and hasn't had as much hardship as she had, it doesn't mean that their problems are trivial and they can't empathize with hers. She learns that the people around her can truly care about her, not out of a sense of duty or pity but genuine affection, and that she can let them in instead of push them away. Above all she learns to allow herself to heal.

(show spoiler)

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists - Chloe Benjamin

I really enjoyed this one, probably one my favorite reads this year. Four siblings in 1969 New York go see a fortune teller who tells each of them separately the dates of their deaths, and the prophecies affect how each of them live their lives from that moment on. The book is divided into four parts covering each of the siblings' lives, and every section, extensively researched to provide a vivid background, gave me things to think about and relate to and as a whole kept me interested. I liked the writing too, although there tends to be a lot of telling when it comes to the philosophical parts on issues such as fate vs. free will, being bold but reckless vs. being careful but restrictive. It's a gripping, memorable, complex piece of literary fiction with numerous thought-provoking points for discussion, including but not limited to family, faith, destiny, death and life itself.

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women - Kate Moore

This book takes on an important historical topic in relation to occupational health and safety, but the writing isn't as engaging as I would have liked. The tone sometimes veers towards the sentimental and melodramatic, perhaps in an attempt to make the story more personal, or maybe it was influenced by the sensational tone of newspaper articles from the era which were used as sources. Nevertheless, these women who worked as radium dial painters in early 20th century America endured horrible suffering and should be remembered for their subsequent role in the improvement of work safety standards.

Lion by Saroo Brierley

Lion (Movie Tie-In) - Saroo Brierley

A nice, quick memoir about something that for many small children might be one of their worst nightmares: getting lost and not being able to go home. Five-year-old Saroo unwittingly went so far from his hometown in India, and then went event farther across the world as he was adopted by a couple in Australia. Armed with his childhood memories, advanced technology and a hefty dose of luck, he managed to trace his way back home as an adult. Although some inconsistent details confused me, it's quite a good read that's written in a simple, straightforward manner, which makes it also accessible to a younger audience.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book - Geraldine Brooks

This engrossing read traces the fictionalized history of a real-life ancient Jewish manuscript found in Sarajevo, Bosnia and the people – Jews, Muslims and Christians – who shaped its destiny, from the 15th century up to the present day. The details about the restoration and conservation of old books are quite fascinating. Richly steeped in history and meticulously researched, the story jumps back and forth between chapters set in different countries and eras with different characters. Some of these characters are sympathetic and likeable, some others not so much (one example of the latter is Hanna, the main character in the present era, who comes across as annoyingly judgmental to me). When reading novels structured like this I would sometimes be more drawn to certain story lines more than the others, but Brooks spins her tale so well that after a few pages of each new chapter I always found myself captivated, no matter how I may feel about the characters. I've had a secondhand copy of this book in my stacks for years but only got to it this year, when it's starting to look like it's well on its way to becoming an ancient manuscript itself. I'm very glad I gave it a chance.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko - Min Jin Lee

I had heard before about the people called the zainichi (ethnic Koreans in Japan), but I'd never read any books about them. This historical novel brings the spotlight to the lives of these Koreans who live in Japan and their struggles with identity, discrimination, racism and a sense of belongingor not belonging.

The main character Sunja and her family move to Japan before the Korean War, which prevents them from coming back. But it's hard to simply make a living due to the limited occupations available to them, so many Koreans turn to work in pachinko or arcade game parlors. Before reading this book I had no idea that the pachinko business (and also yakiniku) in Japan is dominated by Koreans because it's considered a second-rate employment which many Japanese won't touch. It's also difficult for these people to become Japanese citizens although subsequent generations are born in Japan, while returning to the now divided Korea is also not a simple matter as for many of them Japan is the only home they've ever known.

The story is compelling and I became genuinely invested in the principal characters. However, the writing is pretty weak and stilted with too much telling. As the story progresses through generations it spends too much time on the plot lines of minor characters when I'd rather hear more about Sunja and her family. Luckily the ending pulls things back into focus and provides what I felt to be an appropriate conclusion for such a complex topic.

Despite its flaws this book sheds light on an important issue, one that probably not too many people are aware of but deserves a wider audience. I think The Calligrapher's Daughter would be an interesting companion read for this, as it focuses on Koreans who stayed and survived the Korean War.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing - Marie Kondō

Some of the tips in this book can be quite useful, while a few others are a bit ridiculous. KonMari's method is arguably partly rooted in Japanese culture and spiritualism, but some of the more bizarre techniques seem to stem from her own ritualistic, OCD-like behavior -- which I do get in a sense since I have such tendencies of my own although much less severe, but she takes things to a whole new level by treating objects like living beings with feelings to consider. She does this in the most serious manner but I couldn't help seeing it as comical.

The book advises to keep only the things that spark joy and discard the rest. So I just took the ideas from it that I found useful, had a little amused chuckle and then went on my merry way. I didn't even have to think about discarding the book since I was only reading it after my sister borrowed it from a friend.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

The Eyre Affair - Jasper Fforde

I first heard about this book when I read Jane Eyre about 10 years ago and only got around to reading it now. Many people seem to enjoy it including some of my friends, but I found it to be a little less than engaging and not much of a page-turner. Ironic, since there's a minor character actually named Paige Turner in it.

I couldn't decide what the tone of the story is supposed to be. It keeps flip-flopping between the light and humorous (witty puns and names like the one mentioned above, literary trivia, random funny stuff from cloned dodos as pets to quirky secret societies) and the serious (veterans of an ongoing war, murdered innocents, an all-powerful corporation which has the English government in its pocket). I liked the Jane Eyre parts, but I'm sure I missed a lot of the other literary and historical/political references.

Thursday is a fierce lady but somehow I was more interested to learn further about the diabolical, mind-bending, bulletproof villain Acheron Hades and how he got his powers. One plot hole that bugged me was that things can happen in the background of the novel Jane Eyre that don't affect the story line as long as Jane doesn't know about them, because the novel is written in her first person point of view. But Thursday is also the first person narrator of this book and there are chapters seen through other people's points of view which she can't possibly know about. Overall I give this 2.5 stars, which I might round up or down later depending on how generous I feel.

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

Truly, Madly, Guilty - Liane Moriarty, Caroline Lee

I think the dual timelines don't really work in this novel. The chapters switch between the ill-fated 'Day of the Barbecue' and two months afterward until halfway through the book. Obviously this is intended to build suspense but Moriarty spends too long skirting around what actually happened at the barbecue while continuing the present narrative and discussing the consequences, and at some point I just wished she would reveal everything already.

There seems to be so much hidden bitterness between the characters -- between husband and wife, between friends, between one couple and another. It was uncomfortable to read but I guess that's the point of the story: to uncover what's buried beneath the layers of people's relationships (which Moriarty does exceptionally well), and it's not always pretty.

A Midsummer's Equation (Detective Galileo #6) by Keigo Higashino

A Midsummer's Equation - Keigo Higashino

It would seem odd to say that what feels refreshing about this murder mystery is starting it without knowing who the criminal is. You might wonder, isn't that the whole point of mysteries, to find out who did it? But in the other two Higashino books that I've read before, the murderer's identity is quite obvious from the beginning and the focus is on how they did the crime. That is not the case with this novel.

The story opens with a controversial plan for an undersea mining exploration at a struggling resort town, pitting some environmentalists against those who are pro-development. So when a resort guest is killed, at first I thought the murder would be related to the issue. But the crime turns out to be a lot more personal than that. I was totally clueless and couldn't guess what happened as the story goes to unexpected directions, uncovering secrets piled upon more secrets. What I liked most was how our Detective Galileo, Professor Yukawa, develops a bond with the little boy staying at the same resort with him and becomes a kind of science tutor slash life mentor for the kid.

SPOILER ALERT!

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty - Zadie Smith

As a modern adaptation of Howards End, for which I only gave 2 stars, I surprisingly liked this a little better than the original. The plot and characters aren't exact parallels—there are feuding families here too, the Belseys and the Kippses, but the main story focuses on the interracial Belsey family and their internal conflicts, while the Kippses are merely supporting players.

One of my problems with Forster's original was that I felt the larger themes within the book overshadow the characters themselves, but that is not the case with this. Smith's characters are well-developed and rise above the themes (racial, cultural, political) that they represent, although not all of them are likeable. Father Howard Belsey has a sorry excuse for a middle-age crisis, daughter Zora hides her insecurities by being an unbearably opinionated know-it-all, and youngest son Levi searches for a true identity by faking his accent and pretending he was raised in the streets instead of in a well-educated middle class suburban home. I only sympathized with mother Kiki, the big woman with a bigger heart, and earnest eldest son Jerome.

While the story interested me and some parts are quite funny, I dreaded getting an unsatisfactory conclusion similar to the original and was ready to deduct a star in case that happens. I would've thrown this book in disgust if, for instance, Kiki forgives Howard for his first infidelity and never finds out about his second. Luckily Howard gets the ending that he deserves (Howard's end—get it?) though a bit messy and mostly vague, but that's how real life can be.

SPOILER ALERT!

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng

What an engrossing read that packs an emotional punch. Ng does a great job with the omniscient point of view, making us understand each of the characters even though we might not sympathize with some of them. Both the parents' and the children's sides of the story are equally engaging, although I could relate to the teenagers in particular, having grown up in the 1990s like them. I felt this to be a very human story. Everyone, both kids and adults, makes mistakes, no matter how strictly some of them follow the rules and try to create a perfect life.

At some point I was tempted to give this a rare 5 star rating because I was enjoying it so much, but I settled with 4 in the end since I wasn't satisfied with a few things. All of the characters have their own flaws but Mia becomes a rather too perfect, all-knowing character by the end. I also wished that all the Richardson children's secrets are revealed to their mother so she can treat them more fairly and not think that only her youngest child is capable of doing something wrong. But I still liked this very much. Lots of topics to think about and discuss, from motherhood to teen dynamics to interracial adoption. I will definitely check out Ng's first book.

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours - Lisa Wingate

I really liked this one. The writing isn't spectacular and sometimes veers toward cheesiness or melodrama, but it's still a real page-turner. Due to the awful things that happen to the children in the book (kidnapping, neglect, and abuse—to name a few), at some point I expected even worse to happen to them, and the author is very good at maintaining that feeling of dread, building even more suspense as the book goes on. The fact that this is inspired by a true episode in history adds a deeper dimension to it.